How LSTC’s public church curriculum contributes to Annelisa Burns’s prison ministry

Annelisa Burns smiling in front of a wall of plants

Annelisa Burns, a first-year MA student, has known for a while that she wanted to get a graduate degree in religious studies. With the eventual goal of being a professor, the Naperville native looked at a few seminaries and divinity schools to further her studies following her graduation from Augustana College in spring 2022. It was meeting LSTC students on a J-term trip to Holden Village this past January, however, that sealed the deal for her.

“I wanted these people to be my friends and classmates,” Burns recalls thinking.

Burns went to Holden Village as part of a class with Dr. Jason Mahn, Professor of Religion at Augustana. Mahn also happens to be the director of Augustana’s pre-seminary track and has many close ties with LSTC. He encouraged Burns to consider LSTC for her next step.

Though Burns says it took a while, she is very glad she made the decision to come to LSTC. For one thing, Burns is happy to be back near where she grew up. “It felt like the right time to be in Chicago,” Burns describes. She also loves the tight-knit community of LSTC, and how easy it has been to make close friends.

Burns attributes this ease to having a shared vocation with her classmates. Like many of her peers, Burns is interested in issues surrounding social justice, specifically those that have to do with incarceration. She currently commutes back to the Quad Cities, where Augustana is located, once a week for her work with the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP).

APEP is currently in its second year and is a program that allows for men in the East Moline Correctional Center to obtain a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Burns describes this as unique since most prison education programs are for a 2-years associate degree or certificate.

This past summer Burns did administrative work for APEP, and in the fall taught and worked as a TA in English 101—a basic studies skills course, mostly involving reading and writing to ensure all the students were on the same page going into the program since some of them have not been in a classroom environment for many years.

Burns sees a lot of connection between what she’s learning in LSTC classrooms and her APEP work. “There’s definitely a lot of overlap,” she said. Burns has specifically been thinking a lot about atonement theory and the language we use to describe God, and how describing God as a “judge” sounds very different in a prison context. Burns also said that a lot of her students are Christian, and they let their faith inform their opinions in the classroom more than her college classrooms at Augustana.

Though Burns went to Augustana, an ELCA college, and now LSTC, she herself is not Lutheran. She grew up attending St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Naperville and her Catholic faith is still very important to her. 

Burns describes feeling some tension at LSTC around being Catholic, especially when most people assume she is Lutheran, yet is finding her place. In fact, Burns even feels that LSTC is enriching her faith. “I think having a Catholic perspective allows me to bring new and diverse ideas into the classroom that I hope are helpful to others. I think it’s allowed me to make connections and hopefully bring positive connections into the space.”

Overall, Burns describes her first semester as “very full.” Between a hefty course load, getting to know her new classmates, and commuting for APEP work, there has hardly been a dull moment. Still, Burns is clearly right where the Holy Spirit has been leading her to be.

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